December 11, 2017

Science’s superstitions

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The cult of randomness and the taboo on teleology

This article is an extended version of a combination of three chapters, 5, 26, and 27, of The Way: An ecological world view by Edward Goldsmith.

It was first published in this form in The Ecologist Vol. 27 No. 5, 1997, under the title “Scientific Superstitions”.


Critical to maintaining the credibility of modern science is a whole series of dogmas that are believed-in quasi-religiously by our scientists, contrary to the empirical and theoretical evidence.

In this article the author considers two of them: the randomness of life processes (in particular of the all-inclusive life process: evolution), and from this, the denial that they are purposive or teleological.

The notion that the ecosphere and everything in it is the product of pure chance is critical to the paradigm of reductionist science. The French biologist and Nobel Laureate, Jacques Monod (left) refers to the mechanism of determining the evolution of life and of culture as a “gigantic lottery” or as “Nature’s roulette” [1]. “Chance alone” he sees,

“as the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution This central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other conceivable hypotheses. It is the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition – or the hope – that on this score our position is likely ever to be revised.”

Many neo-Darwinists, however, (including Dobjzansky and Julian Huxley, grandson of T. H. Huxley, Darwin’s famous disciple) have adopted a less extreme position. They admit that mutations may well be caused by factors that we ignore, but nevertheless in all cases, as Huxley insists [2]

“They are random in relation to evolution. Their effects are not related to the needs of the organism, or to the condition in which it is placed. They occur without reference to their biological uses.”

What in effect Huxley is saying is that although something makes a mother feed her child, whatever that something is, it is unconnected with the child’s need to be fed by its mother.

Even this is unacceptable. Life processes, in the real world, are not random, even in this less extreme sense of the term. Art styles for instance are not developed at random, but closely reflect the character of the cultures in which they are developed. The clothes people wear are indicative of the image of themselves they wish to communicate to others. The way people walk, eat, light a cigarette, blow their nose, do up their shoelaces – all convey some information as to the personality of the individuals concerned.

Behaviour is in fact, so much more ordered than people think, and consequently so little random, that it is questionable whether people are in fact capable – even if they so desire – of behaving in a random way. This appears to be confirmed by various experiments such as those described by the psychologists W.R. Ramsay and Anne Broadhurst [3] who experimented with a panel of 72 people by asking them to repeat in time to a metronome a series of numbers, 1 to 9, in as random a manner as possible. Significantly they found that:

“. . . in accordance with other studies on randomness and response in human subjects, the result of this experiment shows that even when subjects try to be random, there is a high degree of stereotype.”

It has been suggested that it is possible even to identify a particular individual by his ‘random number matrix’ and also that a pathological configuration of a matrix might reveal a mental disease. A set of random numbers has actually been used to enable a practitioner to differentiate between brain-damaged patients and normal subjects. The British cybernetician, Stafford Beer [4] also rejects the view that randomness is a natural feature of behaviour in the natural world. He writes,

“There are random number tables on my book-shelf; there are computer tapes for producing pseudo-random numbers next door; there is a large electronic machine for generating noise upstairs; down the road there is a roomful of equipment designed to hurl thousands of little metal balls about in a random way; and I use ten-sided dice as paper-weights. The upkeep of this armoury is considerable; think of all the time we spend trying to ensure that these artefacts produce results which are ‘genuinely random’ – whatever that may mean. This tremendous practical problem of guaranteeing disorderliness ought to be enough to satisfy any systems man that nothing is more unnatural than chaos”

This is a hideously heretical view, in the eyes of contemporary scientists, but one that is consistent with the thinking of C. H. Waddington, the British geneticist, embryologist and theoretical biologist, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, the founder of General Systems Theory, Jean Piaget, the Swiss biologist and psychologist, and others who have rejected (implicitly or explicitly) some of the more glaring absurdities of the Paradigm of Modern Reductionist Science and its derivative the Paradigm of neo-Darwinism.

The notion that the world is orderly, and that life processes are purposive was fundamental to the world view of traditional societies throughout the world. This basic principle was used by the natural theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a means of proving the existence of God. However, 19th century science was in search of what was called a ‘naturalistic’ explanation, that is, an explanation formulated in the language of physics, to the exclusion of anything regarded as ‘vitalistic’ or ‘supernatural’. Teleology therefore had to be avoided at all costs, and it is one of the chief attractions of Darwinism that it appeared to satisfy this condition.

But how do scientists know that a process is random? How do they know it is not part of an orderly pattern that they simply have not been able to identify? The great French naturalist, J. P. Lamarck (right), who is considered to be the founder of modern biology, is often quoted as stating that “the word randomness only expresses our ignorance of causes.” The French physicist, Henri Poincaré, also saw randomness as but a measure of our ignorance, as did the French theoretical biologist Albert Jacquard, and also C. H. Waddington, in particular with regard to the randomness of genetic mutations.

The truth of the matter is that scientists know very little about the incredibly complex and beautiful world we have inherited. As Wendell Berry [5] writes: “We are up against mystery”, and

“To call this mystery ‘randomness’ or ‘chance’ or a ‘fluke’ is to take charge of it on behalf of those who do not respect pattern. To call the unknown ‘random’ is to plant the flag by which to colonize and exploit the known. To call the unknown by its right name, ‘mystery’, is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns.”

Recent studies have tended to confirm this view. Biologist John Cairns and his colleagues at Harvard University have conducted studies that suggest that mutations are not random; but are on the contrary, highly adaptive. Cairns’s studies were, at first, dismissed by the scientific establishment; however, Barry Hall of Rochester University, has now come up with similar results. He has found that certain mutations in bacteria, occur more often when they are useful to the bacteria, than when they are not. Cairns refers to such mutations as “directed mutations” while Hall refers to them as “Cairnsian mutations” – in honour of their original discoverer.

There is every reason to doubt too the concept of ‘genetic drift’ which has been postulated to explain evolutionary changes that do not appear to have been “selected”. More and more people are coming to regard this concept – which is far less in use today than it was twenty years ago – as but a convenient device for masking our ignorance of the role of such changes.

The US Geological Survey has until recently also insisted that earthquakes occur randomly. However, according to Ruth Flanagan [6], the US Geological Survey is having second thoughts. Ruth Flanagan notes all sorts of factors that are increasingly associated with the occurrence of earthquakes.

Chemical secretions by bacteria, as Elizabeth Pennisi notes, have been dismissed as “uninteresting by-products of metabolism” in other words waste or, she might have said, randomness. It is increasingly realized that these chemicals are secreted as part of an elaborate communication system between microbes that enable them, among other things, to form microbal societies. If our scientists have not realized this before, it is that bacterial communication has never up till now been properly studied. It has required the development of more sophisticated methods for growing and studying bacteria for it to be possible.

It was also thought for a long time that the genome was a random arrangement (‘bean-bag’) of chromosomes and genes. It is now generally realized that it is on the contrary highly organized. Complexity is also amazingly enough still seen by modern ecologists as random complexity, a complex ecosystem being made up of a large number of living things without any consideration for whether they contribute to, or, on the contrary, impair the integrity or stability of the ecosystem as a whole. Thus the introduction of alien pests, like the rabbit into Australia, and the Dutch Elm bark beetle into Europe, are naively seen as increasing the complexity of Australian and European ecosystems respectively.

Indeed, more and more processes which originally appeared or still appear to be random, are found, or, I am sure, soon will be found upon closer examination, to be highly functional and indeed purposive. In the case of evolution, one does not need experimental “evidence” for rejecting the idea that it is based on random mutations. We know today that single gene mutations can only determine extremely superficial changes. Significant changes can only be brought about by changes occurring to a whole constellation of associated genes (polygeny). This means that for a “functional unit to make an adapted change” as Rupert Riedl [7] notes, “requires not just one happy accident, but an accumulation of happy accidents.”

Does this seem likely? Waddington [8] did not believe it in spite of his insistence on remaining within the neo-Darwinian fold. He admitted in the talk he gave at Arthur Koestler’s famous Ansbach Symposium, that to suggest that evolution was based on selection from random mutations was

“like suggesting that if we went on throwing bricks together into heaps, we should eventually be able to choose ourselves the most desirable house.”

Murray Eden rejects the thesis on the grounds of its sheer mathematical improbability:

“It is as unlikely as it is that a child arranging at random a printer’s supply of letters would compose the first 20 lines of Virgil’s Aeneid.”

The philosopher of Science W. M. Elsasser [9] feels the same way. There has simply not been enough time available since life first appeared on our planet for this crude process to have given rise to the world of living things as we know it today. It has been said that, with sufficient time at their disposal, a batch of monkeys, strumming on typewriters, could eventually compose and type out all of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

But as Elsasser points out, the syllables in just the first lines of these sonnets can be combined in 10143 ways, while the total number of seconds that have elapsed during the existence of our galaxy is at the most 1018. Lecomte du Noüy notes that a sphere of matter, in which even the simplest protein molecule (made up of only 2,000 atoms of only two different kinds) can be formed by the fortuitous coming together of the constituents, would have to have a radius of 1082 light years which far exceeds that of the universe.

Even Francis Crick, who earned the Nobel Prize together with James Watson for having worked out the genetic code, realizes that the 3,000 million years since life began on our planet is far too short a period for the living world to have evolved by the process of selection from random mutations. He suggests the evolutionary process was initiated on some distant planet whose enlightened inhabitants generously dispatched to us various ancestral bacteria in a rocket. After that it was plain sailing – just a matter of time for selection to do its job and for more and more complex forms of life to evolve. It clearly does not say much for Darwin’s theory if, to make it work, we have first to postulate a science fiction scenario of this sort.

A less biased student of evolution, one might argue, would surely consider the possibility that the mechanism proposed by Darwin was simply wrong – that there is no way in which selection from random mutations could conceivably be the prime mechanism of evolutionary change. Why then do Crick and the other leading scientists of today continue to insist on the absurd notion of the randomness of life processes? Why indeed has it actually been raised to the elated status of “the central concept of modern biology”. I shall suggest some possible answers.

To begin with, randomness was postulated as an argument against teleology, which was seen as ushering in all sorts of unacceptable supernatural principles, such as God, or various forms of vitalism. Also the ideas of order and teleology were associated with the status quo, i.e. with the interests of the landed classes, rather than with those of the growing industrial classes.

The postulate of randomness was also essential in order to rationalize the reductionist nature of modern science. If the ecosphere displays order, worse still, if the whole evolutionary process were seen as a single co-ordinated strategy, involving all life processes at all levels of organization, then the reductionist approach of modern science would make no sense whatsoever.

The postulate of randomness is also required to justify the fashionable, highly obscurantist statistical method which is, in turn, required to rationalize other key features of the paradigm of reductionist science—reductionism itself for instance, and the reductionist principle of causation.

Also, it is impossible to justify the Promethean enterprise to which our industrial society is committed, and which involves systematically transforming the ecosphere so that it may best satisfy short term commercial interests, if it is seen to be organized to achieve a grand overall project of its own. By seeing the ecosphere as random, on the other hand, it is possible to make out that what order there is in the world in which we live, has been created by science, technology and industry, rather than by God or the evolutionary process.

As J. D. Bernal writes [10]:

“The cardinal tendency of progress is the replacement of an indifferent chance environment by a deliberately created one.”

The insistence by mainstream scientists to maintain the principle of the randomness of life processes in the face of all the evidence (both empirical and theoretical) to the contrary, provides an excellent illustration of Thomas Kuhn’s thesis (one that is now accepted by just about all our serious philosophers of science) that scientific propositions are not accepted because they can be verified or falsified empirically, as reductionist scientists still seem to insist, but because they are consistent with the paradigm of reductionist science and the world view of modernism which it so faithfully reflects, and which, by the same token serves to rationalize and hence legitimize them.

Why does Crick not accept this, along with that most eminent of French zoologists P. P. Grassé, that

“the idea that living things have been brought into being by purely random forces is a gratuitous statement, one which we must regard as wrong and as irreconcilable with the facts.”

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Life processes are purposive

After all, the evidence for the goal-directedness or purposefulness of life processes at every level of organization within the hierarchy of the ecosphere, is so great that its denial to normal people seems quite inconceivable.

Thus it seems absurd to deny that the evolution of gills and fins by fish is purposeful to breathing and moving about in their aquatic environment, or that the development of mammary glands by the females of all species of mammals is purposeful to feeding their babies or that the human milk provided in this way is designed to satisfy the nutritional needs of their young in the first one or two years of their lives.

To Sir Charles Sherrington, [11] it seemed obvious that the embryological process, whereby “a pin’s head ball of cells in the course of so many weeks becomes a child” is purposive. Joseph Barcroft [12] points to:

“the levers laid down in gristle, becoming bone when wanted for the heavier pull of muscle which will clothe them. Lungs, solid glands, yet arranged to hollow out at a few minutes’ notice when the necessary air shall enter. Limb-buds, futile at their appearing and yet deliberately appearing, in order to become limbs in readiness for existence where they will be all-important.”

Barcroft [13] is particularly impressed by the development of embryonic organs, useless at the time to their possessor, but which will be indispensable later on during the course of its development:

“Organs of skin, ear, eye, nose, tongue, superfluous all of them in the watery dark where formed, yet each unhaltingly preparing to enter a daylit, airy, object-full manifold world which they will be wanted to report on.”

Purposiveness is also evident in physiology. As Gavin De Beer [14] notes:

“The structure of an animal shows a number of exquisitely delicate adjustments; the splinters inside a bone are situated exactly where they are required to withstand the pressure to which the bone is subjected; the fibres of a tendon lie accurately along the line of strain between a muscle and the bone to which it is attached; centres of nerve cells in the brain are situated close to the ends of the nerve fibres, from which they habitually receive impulses.”

Purposiveness is equally apparent in animal behaviour. As Bierens de Haan [15] writes:

“the weaving of the web by the spider is purposeful for the catching of insects, and the collecting and storing of caterpillars by the wasp purposeful for the nourishing of its future larva, are facts that are so self-evident that it is not necessary further to elucidate them.”

If life processes achieve their purpose it is because they are under control, but they could not be controlled in the first place unless they had a purpose to achieve. Control serves to assure that life processes achieve their pre-existing purpose. This is clear if we consider that a basic ingredient of control is ‘negative feedback’ and which is totally useless to a non-purposive system.

An essential constituent of an animal’s control mechanism is perception, and perception is essentially purposive. As Keith Oatley [16] writes, “the way we see is in terms of our human purpose in the environment”. Or again what we see

“depends on our particular purpose at the time, what we are trying to do, what aspect of the thing we are seeing that is relevant to what we are trying to achieve.”

What is more, it is not just in terms of a short-term purpose that we see things but ultimately in terms of a long-term strategic purpose, for short-term tactical purposes are meaningless except when seen in the context of the long term strategy of which they are part, while at the same time, our individual strategic purpose is meaningless outside the overall purpose of our society, our ecosystem and the ecosphere as a whole.

The truth of the matter is that purposivness (conscious or unconscious) is an essential feature of all life processes, at all levels of the ecosphere. Things cannot be organized for random reasons. As Pittendrigh [17] notes, order, or organization without purpose,

“is an absurdity . . . there is no such thing as organization in any absolute sense pure and simple. Organization is always relative, and relative to an end. (Thus) the organization of an army is relative to the end of defeating an enemy; and doing so, moreover, in a particular environment or terrain, weapons and political system. A room may be organized with respect to relaxation. Certainly, neither a room nor any army can be organized with respect to nothing.”

Thus, if one states that living systems are organized, then one must be ready to face the question ‘With respect to what are they organized?’ As von Bertalanffy [18] notes,

“The notion of ‘organ’, of visual, auditory, or sexual organ, already involves the notion that this is a ‘tool’ for something.”

Animals will eat and drink and breathe and reproduce because these processes are as much part of them as are the organs that assure these functions. Indeed, there are no such things as animals that do not eat and drink, breathe and reproduce, except as photographs, pictures, concepts and words, nor are there such processes as eating, drinking, breathing and reproducing taken apart from the organisms involved. This must follow from the fact that living things are spatio-temporal systems, which means that the order they display is spatio-temporal order and this necessarily implies purposiveness.

As Herbert Mueller puts it,

“Purpose is not imported into nature, and need not be puzzled over as a strange or divine something else that gets inside and makes life go . . . it is simply implicit in the fact of biological organization.”

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